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Celebrities Are Just the Start of the Expanding ‘Jeopardy!’-verse

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Michael Davies, who has been an executive producer of “Jeopardy!” for over a yr, has proposed quite a few ways to expand the sport show’s brand at a fragile moment of transition, but “Celebrity Jeopardy!” wasn’t one in every of them.

The order for that spinoff, which premieres on Sunday with Mayim Bialik as host, got here from on high.

This past spring, an executive at ABC noticed fans on Twitter were musing about how well a revival of a celeb version of the show would do, Davies said in a recent interview. When Sony, which produces the show, told Davies that they had signed on, he was in shock: The production team would have only the summer to place together the brand new show, on top of mounting a latest season of “Jeopardy!”

“It wasn’t anywhere in my plans,” Davies said. “I’m rarely perplexed, but I used to be perplexed.”

It wasn’t a latest idea. “Jeopardy!” first brought on celebrities as contestants in 1992 for every week at a time. (Early competitors included Carol Burnett, Rosie O’Donnell and Cheech Marin.) “Saturday Night Live” had a recurring sketch making fun of it, featuring a beleaguered Alex Trebek (played by Will Ferrell) attempting to coax responses out of clueless stars. (Categories included “first-grade math” and “the letter that comes after ‘B.’”)

The true game show asked celebrities on intermittently up until 2016, donating winnings to the charity of the victor’s selection. But the new edition could be more ambitious: an hourlong show to air in a prime-time Sunday slot.

Despite the tumult of the past couple of years — which has included the death of the show’s longtime host, Trebek, and a chaotic succession through which the official substitute host left under a cloud of scandal — the show’s rankings have held mostly regular. In 2020, the last yr of Trebek’s tenure as host, episodes of “Jeopardy!” averaged 9.4 million viewers in the US, in line with data provided by Nielsen. Within the yr after, that number dipped barely, to 9.3 million viewers, and viewership has remained the identical to date this yr.

Through the leadership transition, the show mostly kept its fans — assisted, little question, by a series of contestant streaks, including those of Amy Schneider and Matt Amodio, that rallied viewers’ excitement.

The numbers have emboldened Davies, a veteran game-show producer, and his team to press ahead with plans to expand what they’ve known as the “Jeopardy!”-verse.

“It does feel like with Michael Davies, we’ve got someone who’s seeking to probe the extent to which the brand will be expanded,” Chris Stratton, a fan and a moderator of a Reddit page dedicated to discussing the show, said in an interview.

“Jeopardy!” has already made other changes. It began filming a Second Likelihood Tournament, a series that invites back promising contestants, in addition to a retooled Tournament of Champions. The show has also begun publishing in-depth statistics, began a podcast to parse “Jeopardy!” news, created a hall of fame to honor notable figures related to the show and introduced edited highlights for every episode (an addition meant to serve the cord-cutting population).

After which there are the ideas which might be still being batted around: spinoffs for sports and popular culture trivia, a tournament for librarians, and a masters league featuring the show’s most successful players. Davies, a soccer commentator who often compares “Jeopardy!” to a sport, dreams of airing the brand new league’s episodes live. (“That makes numerous my staff nervous,” Davies acknowledged.)

The producer and his team have kept a detailed eye on the response online from devoted “Jeopardy!” fans, who’re known to chafe at changes to the sport show’s structure and who repeatedly discuss, sometimes critically, the minutiae of each announcement.

“The guts and soul of ‘Jeopardy!’ is that a clever person of their normal walk of life can take a pair days off work, fly to Culver City and are available back a pair thousand dollars richer for it,” said Tyler Rhode, a “Jeopardy!” fan and contestant who’s competing on this season’s Tournament of Champions.

But to date, Davies seems to have much of the fandom’s support, due in no small part to his commitment to listening to their feedback on Twitter, Reddit and other online channels.

Fans have long rallied behind the concept of a Second Likelihood Tournament, for instance. And in July, when Davies announced that Bialik and Ken Jennings could be splitting hosting duties, he assured viewers that the show wouldn’t continuously alternate hosts, writing, “We all know you value consistency.”

“I don’t think there’s ever really been a game show that has really listened to its fans the way in which that ‘Jeopardy!’ is currently doing,” said Cory Anotado, a game-show journalist who has been a contestant on the show.

Davies, who developed the unique American version of “Who Desires to Be a Millionaire” that premiered in 1999, was brought in last yr during a crisis. Mike Richards, the show’s executive producer, had been named Trebek’s successor, but that plan imploded after revelations that Richards had made offensive comments on a podcast. Davies’s leadership, in addition to Bialik and Jennings as a hosting duo, were temporary measures that eventually turned everlasting.

Just as fan outcry contributed to Richards’s departure from the show, fan enthusiasm fueled the network’s interest in a latest generation of “Celebrity Jeopardy!”

For this iteration, producers select contestants who’re known to be fans of the show or to have some trivia prowess. This season, those contestants include: Michael Cera, B.J. Novak, Patton Oswalt, Ray Romano, Iliza Shlesinger, Aisha Tyler and Constance Wu. (The primary episode features the actors Simu Liu, Andy Richter and Ego Nwodim, who happens to be an “S.N.L.” comedian.)

The appeal should lie in seeing comedians bring a chaotic informality to a proper game-show structure, Davies said, in addition to in putting celebrities within the anxiety-inducing position of getting their knowledge tested in a public setting.

“I browned out entirely; it was so stressful that I can’t remember one thing about it,” recalled Bellamy Young, an actress who won a celeb episode of the show in 2015.

To stretch the sport into an hourlong episode, the production has added Triple Jeopardy — a primary for the American version of the show — through which clues start at $300 and go as much as $1,500. The fabric will start off easier than in a typical game, which contestants take a test to qualify for. (It isn’t more likely to sink to the extent of “S.N.L.” sketches, though, through which one clue read: “That is the thing that becomes toast.”)

One thing on Davies’s wishlist? A latest spinoff that may bring back former champions.

Inside essentially the most recent season, 4 latest champions were added to the show’s all-time leaderboard, including Schneider, who won 40 games in a row, making her the contestant with the second-highest variety of consecutive wins, and Amodio, who trails close behind with 38 wins.

To Davies, players like Schneider and Amodio are like skilled athletes playing amongst amateurs, and so it is smart to him to feature their talents in a separate tournament or league.

“What we actually need to develop is the pro-level version of the sport,” Davies said. “It seemed ridiculous to me that we’ve got this sport where each yr we take all of our greatest players — we take our LeBrons and our Dwyanes — and we switch all of them out.”

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